Commentary

Robinson picks himself up off the scrap heap for Connecticut

Originally Published: December 15, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- The boxes and piles of scrap sitting behind Prime Materials Incorporated are heaped as high as the building.

[+] EnlargeStanley Robinson
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comAfter working in a factory during a first-semester suspension, Stanley Robinson returned to the UConn basketball team with a changed attitude.
It is an endless sea of junk. An orderly stack of metal serves as a wall down the left side; a bundle of undetermined stuff underneath a tarp files along the back wall; boxes of God knows what line the right side and a pile of pretzel-twisted hard plastic forms a mountain on the ground.

At 9 a.m. on a bitter December day, the 6-foot-9 man maneuvering through the scrap, trying not to get his UConn sweatshirt caught on the razor-sharp edges, has been here for two hours. Until 3:30 p.m. he'll sort the junk into boxes, readying it for its next destination.

The scraps all used to be something. Someday soon they will be reshaped and remolded into something again.

Stanley Robinson can relate.

A year ago he was something -- or more, somebody. A starter at Connecticut, the forward came into his own as the season wound down, averaging 15.8 points and 8.6 rebounds in the Huskies' final five games. He seemed on the brink of something special.

Now he's just another guy on the scrap heap, another working stiff slinging plastic into boxes. A working stiff who, when the work day is over, will drive to Gampel Pavilion, find his seat in the stands and watch UConn roll over Delaware State.

He has nine more days of work left. He knows the number exactly, has known it since the July day when he first showed up at the nondescript building, located on a hard curve heading into the town of Willimantic, to serve an unorthodox suspension meted out by Jim Calhoun.

Tonight is the night Robinson can stop counting. On Friday he officially retired his work clothes, exchanging them for his UConn uniform. When the Huskies tip off at 7:30 p.m. against Stony Brook, Robinson won't be in the stands. He'll be on the bench.

Much like the eventual fate of the scrap he's been sorting, Robinson will return, he believes, reshaped and remolded.

"I'm much different," he said. "I'm more mature now. I'm a man. This made me a man."


Robinson didn't do anything wrong. He didn't commit a crime, didn't injure or attempt to injure anyone else.

He is not academically ineligible.

So why isn't he playing? What earned him a five-month sentence of hard labor.

A desperate need, Calhoun says, to grow up.

"The only one being harmed was Stanley," Calhoun said. "I had a couple of players I asked to leave the program. I didn't want Stanley to leave. He's a really good kid with a heart of gold, but he had to get his life square. I saw signs, little things. He'd be late to study hall or late to practice. He wasn't always going to class. He just wasn't focused."

[+] EnlargeStanley Robinson
David Butler II/US PresswireRobinson was a starting forward and a budding star for the Huskies last season.

So at the end of the season, Calhoun called Robinson into his office and told the sophomore he was suspended for the first semester of his junior season. Calhoun gave him a choice: He could return home to Alabama -- maybe take a few courses there -- or he could stay in Connecticut. If he remained, however, he wouldn't be part of the team, would not be enrolled at the university and should, Calhoun suggested, find himself a job.

If he did everything Calhoun asked, Robinson would be allowed to join the team in December.

It all begs for a heavy dose of cynicism. After all, A.J. Price and Marcus Williams were accused of trying to sell stolen laptops across state lines -- a third-degree felony. Williams was suspended for four months but remained in school; Price, who also was accused of lying to police, was banished for a year but also remained enrolled. Jerome Dyson failed a drug test but missed just nine games. Yet Robinson, a talented forward who could have made the No. 2 Huskies even better, was booted from the team and from school and will have to pay his way next semester because of chronic tardiness?

"I know, I've heard the rumors. But none of them are true," Robinson said. "There's nothing more to it."

If there is a smoking gun, it's hidden somewhere in the backwoods off State Highway 195 in northeastern Connecticut. There is no record of an arrest or even so much as an on-campus dustup with Robinson. Calhoun and Robinson both say he is in good academic standing (that information is not available to the public, a representative from the Dean of Students Office explained to ESPN.com).

This, Calhoun and Robinson insist, is more rescue mission than punishment, a case in which a combustible combination of immaturity, homesickness and social awkwardness were beelining on a collision course to unravel what Calhoun believes is a future NBA career.

"It's not drinking or drugs; he didn't do anything wrong," Calhoun said. "He had some emotional problems, maturity issues, and I told him the only reason I'm doing this is because I care about you."

Calhoun admits this isn't standard procedure for him. He has run plenty of players off for transgressions big and small, and with a stockpile of talent always available at his fingertips, doesn't need to spend time rehabilitating a kid.

I'm much different. I'm more mature now. I'm a man. This made me a man.

--Stanley Robinson

But Calhoun says Robinson isn't a standard player. He seems to genuinely like him, remarks with stunned pleasure how Robinson still gets him a Christmas gift, an uncool no-no among today's players (last year it was a golf tee gadget; this year Robinson is still thinking).

Calhoun charted the unusual course as his own method of tough love because he believed Robinson would embrace it and not leave for another school.

"It wouldn't work with most kids, no way," Calhoun said. "Most kids would have said, 'Screw you.' Alabama was on the phone every day. Stanley could have left in a heartbeat, but he's unique."

Indeed, the only thing more stunning than Calhoun's patience and punishment was Robinson's willingness to take it.

Here was a kid not even 18 when he enrolled at UConn, a desperately homesick Southern-fried catfish out of sorts in codfish-cold waters. Socially skittish -- assistant director of athletic communications Kyle Muncy would have to literally chase Robinson down for postgame interviews -- at a school that engenders swarming media interest statewide, and missing his two daughters, 3-year-old Kamilah and 1-year-old Kelsi, no one would have been surprised if Robinson had bolted for Bama or hometown UAB.

Robinson thought about it briefly, but realized three things right away: he made a commitment to Connecticut; he would become a better player with a potentially brighter basketball future by staying at UConn; and the stunner, he and his family members both thought Calhoun was dead right.

When Robinson called his mother, Rosa, and told her his choice, he remembers his mom, who spent her whole life working in a factory, said three simple words: "So do it."

Stanley Robinson grew up with plenty of positive male role models in his life, but no father. Part of what sold Rosa and her son's extended family on UConn was Calhoun's background and old-school approach. The Connecticut coach lost his father when he was 15 and recognized immediately both what Robinson missed and needed.

"In the end you pick a coach, not a school," said Robinson's uncle, Jeremy Welton, who moved to nearby Vernon, Conn., just before Robinson came to school. He has since finished his degree in finance and works in a local bank. "He and his mom both thought it was important that they pick a coach with a good track record, someone who has been around the track a couple of times and was stern and forceful."

Robinson's forced exile has done nothing to curb the family's enthusiasm for Calhoun. If anything, Robinson is more of a Calhoun fan and cheerleader today than he was two years ago. As he sat in the stands watching Calhoun screech during a timeout, Robinson laughed.

Asked what the coach was doing, he smirked and said, "Cussing."

He believes there are two ways to react to Calhoun -- to turn a deaf ear and miss what he's saying or to dig beneath the wilting criticism to find the true intent.

It's the same in his current circumstance. Instead of thinking he's done the coach a favor by sticking around, Robinson believes Calhoun did him a favor by not quitting on him.

"Some coaches -- most coaches -- would just kick you out,'' he said. "They don't need you so they don't want to be bothered with you. He took a second chance on me. I love that man."


Ruslan Inyatkin returned from vacation to find he had a new employee at Prime Materials.

"I was like, 'I know that guy,'" said Inyatkin, a former Husky himself. "He was one of my favorite players."

Other mid-season arrivals

Along with Stanley Robinson at Connecticut, a number of players will be riding in like the cavalry at the semester break to make immediate impacts. Here's a look at the top 5:

Tyree Evans, Kent State: Dogged by legal troubles, the journeyman hoopster (originally committed to Cincinnati, spent time at two junior colleges, committed to Maryland but then asked for his release amid a campus furor about his acceptance) finally takes the court at a Division I school. At Motlow State Community College, Evans hit 44 percent of his 3-pointers.

Juan Manuel Fernandez, Temple: The Argentinean point guard earned rave reviews from Bob McKillop and John Thompson III during the Under-18 Championships. McKillop called him "Pepe Sanchez with a jump shot."

Gus Gilchrist, South Florida: The big man, who left Virginia Tech after the April 2007 shootings, committed to Maryland and then changed direction for Tampa, arriving just in time for the Big East season.

Alex Legion, Illinois: The talented shooter and former ESPN top 150 player left Kentucky last year at the break and will bring instant offense to the Illini.

Laval Lucas-Perry, Michigan: John Beilein's rapidly improving Wolverines will get even better when the Arizona transfer and Flint native takes the court this month.

Robinson explained why he was there and his new supervisor walked him through the various jobs he'd have to master. Most days Robinson -- with his iPod scrolling through enough songs to fill the eight-hour day -- is out back, filling boxes. Like an endless pile of laundry, the sorting never ends. As soon as Robinson fills one huge box, a guy on a forklift comes by to clear it and Robinson gets another box.

In the summer it was sweat-inducing, hard work. In the winter, it's frigid.

Robinson figures it's the first time he's worked since he was a kid, when he helped out at a fish market, bringing home dinner every night for his mom to cook.

"I liked that better," he said. "At least I got dinner."

By now everyone at Prime Materials knows who Robinson is and why he's there. He mixes in easily with the grown men who work there, appreciating just how hard it is to be a grown-up.

"He's a good worker," Inyatkin said. "Everything you tell him to do, he does. And if he has a problem where he's going to be late, he either calls or texts me."

Robinson earns $700 a week that he uses to pay for his apartment, food and utilities. Robinson is living frugally, pocketing as much as he can to pay for school once he re-enrolls.

Yes, that's right. Robinson technically is a walk-on, albeit one who averaged 10.4 points and 6.5 rebounds the last time he stepped on the court.

Calhoun said it's because he wants Robinson to fully earn his way back onto the team. That UConn also doesn't have a scholarship yet -- as it awaits word on Aussie superstar Ater Mojak -- also might have something to do with it.

"He's already earned it," Calhoun said. "He'll get it back next year."

Before and after work, Robinson is at his other job -- staying in shape for basketball. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he's up at 4 a.m. so he can drive 27 miles to East Hartford for a 5 a.m., prework workout with Anthony Menard, the high school coach of former UConn guard Doug Wiggins.

When he's done at Prime Materials, Robinson runs three miles, runs the stadium steps on campus or heads to Gampel to lift weights. He can't work out with the team, so he usually arrives as his teammates are leaving.

It seems counterproductive, forcing a kid who didn't have the skills to cope and be on time when his entire day was structured for him, to try and reorchestrate his life on his own.

Yet Robinson has taken to it with apparent ease, and in the process, developed a sense of pride that wasn't there before.

"I'm not surprised," Calhoun said. "He took this to heart. I knew he would. He had a lot of self-defeating behavior before but he has a really good heart and he really wants to be here."


The first time Robinson went to a UConn game as a fan, he got lost.

[+] EnlargeStanley Robinson
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comWhen not working, Robinson cheered his teammates from the stands. Now it's time to hit the court.

"I didn't know what door to go in," he said. "I had no idea where I was going. I think I walked around the whole building."

He's found his way since, but he still doesn't enjoy the trip.

More than the long days at work or the lonely mornings working out, this is the hardest part. The Huskies are in layup lines getting ready for tip-off and Robinson, clutching a ticket in his hand, is in the stands, accepting warm wishes and good lucks from fans sitting nearby.

He appreciates the support, and jokes that maybe he should sign up for one of the shooting contests during a timeout, but he longs to be on the court.

He can't imagine how it will feel when he goes into Gampel the way he's accustomed to, sliding into the locker room, putting on his uniform and then waiting for Calhoun to signal his turn to go into the game.

It will all be so familiar and yet so different. Same number, same place, same routine, different person.

"I've been saving my tickets, everything,'' he said. "I want to make a scrapbook so I can remember what I went through. It's been very humbling, but it's going to all be worth it. I'll have a better job, a better life and I can look back and say I did this. I survived this and I came out a different person.''

Reshaped and remolded, you'd never know Robinson could have once been cast aside as scrap.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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